10 Common (and Discouraging) Pieces of Advice Offered to New Dispute Resolution Practitioners

Graduating from law school with an interest in mediation and alternative dispute resolution seems inevitably to lead to the question: what now? Although law schools offer options to learn alternative dispute resolution theory and some schools still offer hands-on mediation training, it can be hard to find concrete guidance on how to pursue a first career in mediation after being called to the bar.

Proceed with Caution?I have been fortunate enough to be able to speak with various professional mediators and have had some wonderful, supportive conversations. That said, there are certainly some very prevalent beliefs about the feasibility of entering the field of dispute resolution as a new practitioner that are much less encouraging. For this blog, I have been asked by the series curator to write about the negative ‘cautions’ that I have heard about pursuing a career in mediation as a means of framing a discussion about the perceived barriers to entering the field. These ‘cautions’ or ‘myths’ will be responded to in an upcoming blog and, hopefully, will generate discussion at the upcoming CLE conference (Share the Land) where dispute resolution as a first career will be the topic of one of the panels.

Below is a list of some of the disheartening input that most want-to-be mediators have likely heard (at least once).

  1. You cannot go straight into mediation; you have to be a litigator for at least 10 years. [1]
  2. No one will hire you as a mediator until you establish a good reputation, and you won’t be able to establish a good reputation until you have mediated many disputes.
  3. You need a full head of grey hair to be taken seriously as a mediator (i.e. you cannot have a mediation career while you are young).
  4. There is not enough work in mediation to make it a full-time career.
  5. You must have a split practice and cannot be solely a mediator.
  6. Mediation is falling out of fashion and is no longer a growing area.
  7. Rosters are closed or full and there is nowhere to find work as a nascent mediator.
  8. Certain sectors may not take a female mediator seriously.
  9. You cannot be both a mediator and a litigator, the skill set is not compatible; if you work in litigation, you must give up your mediation career.
  10. You will never make enough money pursuing mediation as a career.

Admittedly, there is some overlap in the above list (e.g. #4 and #10), but each entry can stand alone or be woven together; no matter how they are packaged, they represent a discouraging parcel of advice.

Throughout law school, I enjoyed many positive discussions with Sterling J. Nelson about the various ways we may each be able to pursue a career in dispute resolution. Preparing information for this blog, I have spoken with some wonderful individuals who have managed to carve out a career in mediation straight out of law school or following articles. Three of these people Carrie Gallant, Laura Matthews, and Janko Predovic, will join Sterling on November 10, 2015, at the CLE Conference on Dispute Resolution: Share the Land. The panel  “I Wanna Drive the Zamboni”: Dispute Resolution as a First Career will offer an opportunity to hear their stories and discuss much needed advice on ways to achieve a thriving dispute resolution career. If you are interested in the topic, please join us there and bring your questions and comments to enliven our discussions.

Robin PhillipsGuest blogger Robin Phillips graduated from Allard Hall Faculty of Law (UBC) in 2014 and articled with Race and Company LLP. Robin took a number of dispute resolution courses at UBC, including the clinical Mediation program, and completed Mediate BC’s Court Mediation Practicum. She continues to have a strong interest in dispute resolution and will be pursuing further opportunities in the field.

Watch for the following posts in this series where Nancy Cameron, QC and Darrin Hotte examine this list of advice and offer their perspectives on its accuracy. Read Nancy’s response Have Courage, Robin: A New Narrative for New Dispute Resolution Practitioners and Darrin’s Diversity and Youth: Hope for Young Mediators Without Law Degrees.

[1] As a recent law school graduate, my focus has been on developing a dispute resolution practice within the legal field, and so the comments I’ve heard tend to reflect the presumption that one is a lawyer first, and then a mediator.  Several of the comments here presume that one is also engaged in a litigation practice before entering into mediation. I would be very interested in hearing from other young practitioners the degree to which these perceived barriers apply to other fields of study.

5 thoughts on “10 Common (and Discouraging) Pieces of Advice Offered to New Dispute Resolution Practitioners”

  1. Even though most mediators embark on their career as legal practitioners (litigators), litigation is not a prerequisite. There are mediators who are not legal practitioners. Nothing stops one from practising mediation immediately after graduation from law school. The challenges are no different from setting up in private practice or in pursuing any other career right from college. Granted, it is not unusual for disputants to appoint a mediator on account of experience and reputation. But s common in other professions

  2. I thought I’d offer a quick comment to K.I. Laibuta and others who read Robin’s blog as suggesting that lawyers have some kind of monopoly on mediation practice. K.I. Laibuta is absolutely correct in noting that mediators need not be lawyers. In BC, there is an incredible diversity in professions and backgrounds represented on the mediator rosters, and our community is so much richer for that diversity!

    Robin is certainly aware of that fact too, since I know that the majority of her coaches and mentors in mediation came from other backgrounds. Nonetheless, as a young lawyer, the advice she has received from senior counsel has tended to make the assumption that there is a single path to becoming a mediator – which includes years of litigation practice. She’s captured those comments above as “discouraging” aspects of the advice she and others have heard, however she did so knowing that both Nancy Cameron, QC and Darrin Hotte were going to offer their perspectives on this common advice. Darrin, in particular, squarely addresses the assumption that law is a pre-requisite in some way to being a mediator, and it is definitely helpful to read the three posts back-to-back. Nancy and Darrin do a terrific job of debunking some of the assumptions that underlie the advice that new practitioners hear much too often.

    I would be very curious to hear from others in different jurisdictions. Does the mediators-should-be-lawyers assumption play a strong role elsewhere? In BC, I’d suggest that it tends to be much stronger within specific practice contexts (e.g. less prevalent in most family practice areas, restorative justice approaches, and community-based mediation models).

  3. I just wanted to add to the discussion and compliment Robin on a great article! These are most definitely assumptions that many new mediators have come across. I have spoken with many new mediators who have graduated with extremely comprehensive training, yet feel frozen with discouragement within the field -most of which Robin mentions in her article. I think it is up to each of us to help this field to evolve and to demystify the assumptions that are ever present in this field. The future of ADR, mediation and services to clients depends on it.

    1. Thanks Caitlin for adding to the discussion! As you mentioned, it’s up to those in the field to demystify the assumptions. I’d also add that those with mediation skills and training who use their skills in other professions can make a big impact demystifying the process for potential clients as well. It’s all about making the whole pie bigger!
      We encourage co-mediation as a way for newly trained mediators to begin learning about how best to apply their skills. This is why we developed our Associate Rosters and also posted our “On Co-Mediation” series here. Hopefully it also can help encourage both new and experienced mediators to work together.

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